A PhD student receives a rejection from a journal. Here is how she and her supervisors responded

I was talking with a colleague recently who described an interaction with one of her students who had been rejected from a journal. The response of her supervisors sounded really interesting, so I asked if she’d mind forwarding the emails onto me for a blog post. Which she kindly did! There’s a lot here that is useful in thinking about how to respond when you get rejected. I should point out this is in a country where many students complete a PhD through publications, and in this case the article was written by the student, with all the supervisors helping her and named as authors.

First the student wrote to her supervisors

Dear supervisors,

At last I have got response from the journal regarding my second manuscript. Unfortunately they are not interested to publish it.

I´m very disappointed about that. I can agree with a lot of the comments, it is useful for me in the future process but it has taken over 6 months to deliver that answer and right now I don´t have so much positive energy to restart the work.

I think I can interpret their comments (at least from the first reviewer) as if I rewrite the manuscript I can try to resubmit it but I´m not really sure if that is their suggestion.

Then one supervisor replied, cc’ing the others

Thank you for your email. Yes that is somewhat disappointing, but from the comments, perhaps it is good that it isn¹t published in its current form: because from what the reviewers saw, I don¹t think the paper did full justice to your work and your thinking! Better to have a stronger paper published, even if it is later.

I have had similarly prickly experiences, particularly in this journal, with reviewers who really want accounts of research to feel as if the research was quantitative (a bit like reviewer 1 worrying about interpretation in ethnographic research etc).

On the plus side:

  1. Both reviewers appear to have read your paper in quite a bit of detail! (which is not always the case)
  2. Both reviewers have offered well-written comments that are quite easy to understand (which is not always the case)
  3. There is lots in the comments that will help to improve the paper.

I think both the reviewers offer largely helpful comments – they are not fighting the kind of story you want to tell, or questioning its importance. They do want to know more concrete detail about the study methods, want a clearer alignment between the question, theory, findings and discussion, and a very clear argument as to what is new and why it matters. They are all very achievable without having to go back and do more analysis!

I think the process now should be to wait a few days until you feel a bit less fed up, and then to start:

  1. Thinking of alternative journals (although R1 seemed to invite this the journal is definitely not asking for a resubmission as I interpret the email). XXX might be one possibility. Or YYY?
  1. Coming up with your own to-do list in terms of changes you think are worth making to the paper – and perhaps differentiating those that are small/easy, and those that require a bit more thought and work. You can also list those points the reviewers made that you¹re not so bothered about and don¹t want to make big changes.

So, when you¹re feeling you have the energy to take it up again, there are my suggestions 🙂

Then another supervisor added her voice

I understand that it feels a bit disappointing, particularly since they kept you waiting so long for the decision. But I can only echo what [Supervisor 1] is suggesting, once you have worked through the comments, your paper will be much stronger.  I think you should let it sit while you are completing the paper on the [different analysis], you are in a good flow with that one at the moment! And we should think of an alternative journal, I agree, we need to aim for one that is included in Web if Science.

And then a third supervisor added his voice

This is the kind of experience that is not only sometimes happening, but rather a rule than an exception. And just as S1 and S2 state; it will in the end improve the paper. But I do agree they could have given us this feedback at least half a year earlier….

I also think S2’s advice is right; go on with the paper on [different analysis] and let this paper rest (just like a wine; it will become better with time and maturation – ask your husband!).

So let this experience take its time and aim for a journal that is indexed in Web if Science, although the IF is not too important.

Then the student replies

Thanks for the support!

I totally agree with you all and as I said, the comments from the reviewers are very good for me in the future process and also for my paper regarding the [different analysis]. I  struggle with the same issues here I guess; clear arguments for the study, evidence for my findings and how to discuss that much more clear.

Brief comment from me

What I like here is:

  1. That we end up with the student being able to take the rejection letter as a way to identify some things that she needs to look out for in another paper
  2. That S3 normalises this kind of experience
  3. That S2 provides very concrete suggestions in terms of not getting distracted by the rejection when work is going well on another paper
  4. That S1 finds positive things to appreciate in the reviewers’ comments, even though it was a rejection
  5. That the student felt comfortable sharing this, and got such strong and immediate support.

8 thoughts on “A PhD student receives a rejection from a journal. Here is how she and her supervisors responded

    1. nickhopwood Post author


      Thanks Jeanette. I think the husband comment relates to what the supervisor knows about this student’s husband’s interest in wine. To me it reflects the fact that members of this supervision team not only work on the thesis project and with a ‘student’, but with a ‘person’, including getting to know aspects of their wider life. This may not suit everyone, but strikes me as something quite nice about this arrangement in this particular context.

  1. Pauline Murray-Parahi

    Thanks for sharing Nick, S2, S2, S3 and of course Student….A timely piece. I’m hoping to submit my first article for rejection/ publication by Christmas Day (my new deadline)..it might make another good blog story…either way I know my supervisors will help me see it as a gift.☺🎄

    1. nickhopwood Post author


      I love the idea of submitting something for rejection! Shows a readiness to engage even though outcomes are uncertain and may involve a (temporary) knock-back


  2. Jonathan

    Reblogged this on Jonathan S. Simmons and commented:
    I am reblogging NIck Hopwood’s post about a PhD student who received a rejection from a journal and what came from that. It’s worth reading for a variety of reasons, including the relationship between the student and supervisors. I’ve received my share of rejections as I continue to improve as a writer and scholar, and I anticipate receiving many more. Initially, the rejection hurts because we all have a tendency to take such things personally, but once you get a few of those under your belt other things things piss you off. Taking six months to reject an article, for example, is enough to drive me mad. I would never consider submitting to that journal again. You have to have some standards as a PhD student.

    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hi Jonathan
      Thank you for your comment and reblog 🙂
      Six months to reject an article isn’t unusual in social sciences – I’ve experienced 9 months a few times to get the first reviews. Most irritating to me was one journal that took 18 months and three lots of reviews to reject me: the final reason being that things were missing from the paper that I’d been told to take out by the first reviewers! Very weak editorship – total inability to take a stance other than to repeat what reviewers said 😦


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